A Comprehensive History of Twerkin
Roughly a week ago, a Bay Area TV station reported in outrage on a teen night at a local nightclub. Kids were simulating sex while dancing. Clutch your fucking pearls, it’s the end of days. The reporter was “shocked” to find a club full of 16 year olds, trying to fuck each other through their clothes, because logic is dead. The offensive dancing was identified as “twerkin,” or more accurately “twerking”—the reporter used the hard “g” sound that signifies never directly interacting with black culture outside of a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode. This moment is significant, because now that your mother’s mother knows about twerkin, pussy poppin’ has officially become mainstream. Congrats to Ass in America; for making that come up. Doing it big in Black History Month.
Ole “mom and pop” motherfuckers who still get information from local news see twerkin’ as a new phenomenon, a Footloose-style corruption of the innocent that’ll turn every man, woman and child into some kind of depraved sexual vampire. Young heads that have always existed in a world where you can watch infinite asses shake in perpetuity on the internet may think dancing like a stripper in public was popularized by The Twerk Team, or invented by Diplo on Twitter. Nah. Both are only the tail end of a 25-year long process that brought ass clapping, bootyquakes and wobbling to the mainstream of American culture. A little research shows it’s a fairly straight line of cultural appropriation that leads from the proto-twerkers of the late 80s to Rebecca and Susan bussin’ it wide open in the middle of Iowa.
PRO-TWERKERS, GO-GO AND KEESHA'S BIG BUTT
The first stop in this history lesson is improbably enough a Spike Lee video from 1988. Yes, the same curmudgeon who loses his shit over Django Unchained and Tyler Perry flicks once made a video for “Da Butt” by Experience Unlimited. You’ve probably heard “Da Butt"; it’s innocuous and catchy like “Baby Got Back”; all sexuality of the song is stripped out by how fucking goofy it sounds now. You could probably play it at a wedding and not turn heads.
What makes the song and video important is that it brought both black college culture and ass-centric dancing to a national audience via Go-Go, a regional DC dance music. While Go-Go never had a real impact, this joint hit number 35 on the Billboard charts when shit like that mattered. There’s heavy emphasis on big butts, lingering shots of “backsides in motion,” and what had to be some of the earliest spandex shorts available to the public. “Da Butt” brought the culture of black fraternities into the homes of people that didn’t actually know black people. The ass shaking here is pretty tame. If you were actually in D.C though, live Go-Go parties (NSFW) were already pretty advanced in the art of ass display and p-popping.
2 LIVE CREW - THE MARTYRS OF TWERKIN
The year is 1991. 2 Live Crew enters the scene. They make more songs about fucking than anyone ever has, get labeled as obscene, get arrested for catching dome on stage, then go to the Supreme Court and finally win your right to legally shake ass on stage. Modern day saints. 2 Live Crew spearheads the Miami Bass sound, which is basically music for black spring break. Girls wear bikinis because Miami has a dope beach, songs are about fucking because girls are in bikinis. It’s a perfect ecosystem.
The video for “Pop That Pussy” is notable for featuring some of the earliest recorded pussy popping on widely distributed video*. Remember this is ’91, for perspective, this is the same year Jordan won his first championship and Blossom debuted on TV. That’s why many of the girls in the video are still wearing those bikinis that give all women—regardless of shape—long butts. It was a limitation of the technology available at the time. Similarly, the rapping is barely above a 13 year old boys bathroom freestyle cipher, because rapping was still new. Sometimes though the message is more important than the delivery and 2 Live Crew were adamant about ass.
*This is entirely unsubstantiated.
THE GODMOTHER OF P-POPPIN
Any discussion of coordinated, overtly sexual ass shaking has to include Caribbean culture. What Asia is to drop kicks, the Caribbean is to hypnotizing onlookers with hip gyrations and butt cheek isolation. When Patra dropped her debut album Queen Of The Pack in ’93, it charted pretty high, riding a wave of dancehall reggae infusion into popular culture. Patra was different than most of her contemporaries simply because she was a woman. Beyond that, she wasn’t afraid to be a hot woman with hard dancehall rhythms. The video for “Queen of the Pack” specifically features Patra and friends in cutoff jean shorts wining it up, and pulling off moves that were entirely familiar to Caribbean cats, but sexually alien to Americans. Catch early shades of Beyonce, Ciara, and Rihanna in the hips of miss Patra. It’s easy to see the link a lot of the sharper gyrations in current day twerkin back to dancehall culture (NSFW), where they still make the hardest American twerk contest look like a Sunday school dance recital.
From ’92-’96 during the third week of April, Atlanta was turned into the cultural center of ass clapping and pussy popping. The regional college partying that was lightly portrayed in the video for “Da Butt” had started to spread across the country, intensify, and now heads began to congregate for Spring Break to take the party to legendary levels. This was Freaknik. While the Freaknik festival dates back to the early 80s, the insane cult of party and ass worship really existed for about four years. The pervasive impact of Freaknik was creating an atmosphere of wild hedonism that spread into legend. It’s not extensively documented—because video cameras were still gigantic and expensive—but for women and dudes of a certain age, the event lives on in mythological status. Freaknik paved the way for shit like Girls Gone Wild, and shaped the psyche of every rapper to come out of Atlanta making strip club anthems. Shoutout to Belinda Carlsile, heaven was a place on earth—it was called Freaknik.
AFTER YOU BACK IT UP, THEN STOP... AND DROP IT LIKE IT'S HOT
New Orleans is as important to the rise of girls shaking their ass in America as the Caribbean. Never forget that Juvenile wrote “Back That Azz Up,” “Slow Motion,” and “She Get It From Her Mama.” Songs that to this day will elicit one person in attendance to drop it low, or shake it fast. New Orleans’ regional dance music, Bounce, is entirely about women being free to shake their asses as fast, violently, and acrobatically as possible, and that philosophical strain is present in a lot of music from the area. With “Back Dat Azz Up” reaching classic status after it was released in ’98 and songs like The 504 Boyz’ “Wobble Wobble” reaching number one on the rap charts in 2000, we have regional ass shaking disseminated to the whole world via MTV. This is the tipping point where anyone with basic cable could learn how to helicopter shake their ass, in the privacy of their own bedroom.
At the same time you have the rise of Atlanta’s strip club culture into the public consciousness via BET’s Uncut, a defunct, uncensored late night video program. There’s songs like Nelly’s “Tip Drill”—an Uncut classic—which brought actual strippers, and their genre defining ass shaking to everyone’s homes at around 3 in the morning. The uncensored version of “Tip Drill” (above, NSFW obviously) features a level of cinéma vérité not seen since the early days of the Dogma ’95 movement. Watching the video you can almost smell the distinct aroma of a strip club—a mixture of cheap perfume, baby powder, naked capitalism, and sweat. If one wanted to take a crash course on modern twerkin techniques, you could do far worse than “Tip Drill,” Ludacris’ “Pussy Poppin,” or Lil Jon’s “Get Low.” By this point Twerkin was firmly part of American culture; it just didn’t have a name.
IF YOU NAME IT, YOU CLAIM IT
By the time ’03 had hit, you could be chilling in Alaska, looking over the Bering Straight to Russia, contemplatively making your ass clap while a small bit of steam rose from your furrowed brow. As long as you had a cable subscription or Internet, the influence of ass shaking was such that you could pick up the basics despite being divorced from all culture. You just wouldn’t have a name for what you were doing.
Sure “pussy poppin” accurately describes it, but the phrase is a bit vulgar and pedestrian. “Twerkin” flows off of the tongue a little better. Carbon dating puts the genesis of twerk, as a term, somewhere around ’04 or so, with popularity really picking up around ’09 when YouTube dance sensation The Twerk Team came into existence. At last check, a search for the word “twerk” on YouTube brings back over 100,000; and that’s just on YouTube. This says nothing of entire sites dedicated to the art form. This popularity proves two things; one, as old magicians and philosophers know—simply naming things gives them power. Having an easily searchable name helped spread and coalesce the movement. Two, it proves that asses shaking is a universal constant of joy and personal fulfillment, unlikely to go away anytime soon. All praise be, to the god of fast asses, for that one.
Ray the Destroyer runs Mishka's blog and is recognized as the number-on Twerkin historian on the entire Internet. You can find him on Twitter here - @raythedestroyer